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Michigan Is About to Have the Best Climate Policies of Any Battleground State

Governor Gretchen Whitmer is set to sign a package of ambitious decarbonization laws.

Gretchen Whitmer.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Michigan looks likely to pass an aggressive package of climate laws this week, as the state’s Democrats are set to capitalize on their first governing trifecta in nearly four decades.

The climate laws would require that 100% of Michigan’s electricity come from carbon-free sources by 2040, putting the state on par with the fastest state-level decarbonization deadlines nationwide. New York, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Oregon also aim to achieve zero-carbon electricity by 2040.

The bills would also open a new Just Transition Office within the Michigan Department of Labor and strengthen the state’s energy-efficiency and utility laws.

While other states have passed aggressive climate legislation, none of them are as politically contested — or quite as central to national politics — as Michigan.

“What’s really exciting is that this is probably the most purple state we’ve seen with a bold climate package on the cusp of the finish line,” Courtney Bourgoin, a senior policy manager for Evergreen Action, a climate advocacy group, told me.

“It’s going to be significant. This is a very pragmatic plan, but it builds off a strong foundation that we have in Michigan,” state Senator Sam Singh, who introduced one of the bills, told me. “It also positions us well to pull down the federal dollars that are available for this transition.”

Michigan’s Democrats are enjoying their first statehouse majority in nearly four decades. They have already repealed the state’s anti-union “right to work” laws and passed new LGBT protections.

The suite of four climate laws passed the state House of Representatives last week and is expected to go to the state Senate for a final vote in the next few days. The Senate already approved an earlier version of the legislation.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign the laws after passage. In August, Garlin Gilchrist, the state’s lieutenant governor, suggested in a speech that Whitmer supported the laws. Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan initially proposed zeroing out carbon pollution from the power sector by 2050, not 2040.

“The climate crisis is urgent,” Gilchrist said at the time. “We need to act now. We need to act legislatively. We need to act administratively.”

Here’s what the four proposed laws would do:

The first law sets a new, 100% clean-energy target by 2040. It also rewrites the state’s existing renewable portfolio standard to require that 60% of the state’s electricity come from wind, solar, or another renewable source by 2034. (The remaining 40% of electricity could come from nuclear power or natural gas with carbon capture.)

The second law sets new energy efficiency requirements for the state’s power and gas utilities. For the first time, utilities must spend at least 25% of their efficiency funds on low-income communities.

The law also encourages utilities to electrify people’s homes in the state by installing induction stoves or heat pumps. That’s particularly important because Michigan ranks among the top five states for use of home-heating oil.

A third law will allow the state’s public service commission, which regulates utilities, to consider climate and reliability questions while planning the state’s electricity grid.

The final law establishes a new Just Transition Office within the state’s labor and economic-development office that will advise the government about how best to retrain and help workers and communities who are hurt by decarbonization.

The office, for instance, could help connect “internal combustion engine vehicle workers” with retraining opportunities, counseling, skills matching, and potentially ways to replace their lost income. Most of its work would come from proposing new state programs, writing “transition plans” for various industries, or identifying federal funding. (My sense is that the office would be as effective and useful as the person directing it.)

“We’re going to be working with industry and workers concurrently,” Singh said. “I’m excited because we ensured that equity is part of the conversation as well as making sure we put strong labor requirements in as well.”

Another pair of proposals would let renewable-energy developers apply to the state’s public service commission for permission to build a project instead of going through a local zoning board. Michigan has highly restrictive local-level zoning rules on building new solar and wind, Sarah Mills, a University of Michigan researcher, told me.

While those proposals have passed the House, their fate in the Senate is less certain. The state’s fall legislative session ends on Friday.


Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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